Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review: Film in Action (Kieran Donaghy)

Many TEFL moons ago (January 2000 to be precise), I had an input session on my Trinity Cert TESOL course at Oxford House, Barcelona that touched on using video in class. I say 'touched on' as in those days of dial-up internet and text-only websites, the input amounted to a couple of ideas for predictive viewing (playing the first few moments of a video before speculating about the rest of it, showing the video with no sound or playing the sound while obscuring the screen, etc) and a discussion of the difficulties of wheeling in a TV trolley, making sure everyone could see and hear, and a general assumption that we probably wouldn't ever use video in class that much.

And then, of course, YouTube happened, broadband happened, the availability and ubiquity of short clips sky-rocketed and along with them came a million ideas for classroom use. However, it was in a way too much - too many videos to know what to choose from and too many ideas that had been thought of too quickly and essentially came down to playing a video together with some comprehension questions (all thewhile hoping the students enjoyed it and thought the teacher was cool).

It is only now that we seem to be getting fully to grips with this influx of visual imagery and the plethora of opportunities it provides for our learners. This year's IATEFL conference featured a number of interesting sessions on how to get the best out of videos both from the viewing standpoint and the creative, productive standpoint (summarised in this post) and it also gave me the opportunity to get my hands on a hot off the press copy of Kieran Donaghy's new book Film in Action. Having had the summer to read through it and a few weeks either side of the holidays to try a few activities out in class, it's about time for a review.

Image courtesy of filminaction.net
Kieran is of course the teacher behind Film English, the award-winning site of ELT lesson plans based around short video clips. Inevitably, the first question that springs to mind when considering getting this book is 'does it offer anything different to the website?' In short, yes, it does. First of all, as in all of the DELTA Teacher Development titles, Part A serves as a review of literature regarding film in language learning and an in-depth discussion of the benefits and potential pitfalls of using film in class. This section is very well-researched and referenced - indeed, it came in very handy over the summer as I tackled a question on authentic materials in the Trinity Dip TESOL written exam. The main point emphasised in Part A is that film in itself is not enough. Any clip or short film we select has to be an integrated part of the lesson with activities planned to fully exploit the language learning potential of the video.

Part B is a gold mine of film-related lesson plans in the usual DELTA style of a brief half-page plan with plenty of scope for adapting to your students' needs and level. I always enjoy the fact that the ideas in these books are generally not pinned to a particular language point, level or age group giving them a high degree of flexibility. Crucially, each activity is not attached to a specific video. Instead, the kind of video needed is described - great for added adaptability and potential recycling - together with suggestions of where to find it and, for many activities, a suggested video - great if you are rushed for time.

Some of the suggested clips are ones that might be familiar to regular users of Film English but the lesson ideas are presented differently, offering more open-ended lesson options. Also, these clips only form part of the activities on offer. There are also activities which encourage students to think about how films are made and how narratives are constructed. The second chapter of Part B also moves into an area that was given a lot of coverage at those IATEFL talks I went to - producing video. With high quality digital video cameras increasingly available either integrated into handheld devices or as stand alone pieces of  hardware, this is a logical and accessible way to move students on from viewing and discussing to creating and sharing.

Part C takes this whole idea even further with guides to setting up English language film clubs, CLIL-style film courses, and film circles for collaborative viewing and discussion of feature-length movies. It has to be said that this is a very comprehensive book full of more than enough ideas for teachers to incorporate into their lessons. It manages to cater to different needs as well. Those who are looking for quick ideas will find them, and those who are interested in incorporating film into their teaching as a way to deeply engage their students in language learning will find plenty to reflect on as well.

And that is where teachers and students can really benefit from using a book like this. As Kieran said in his IATEFL talk with Anna Whitcher, it is important to take time to observe and understand the moving images we see flying before us. It is also important to take the time to read this book carefully and understand how we can best utilise film to encourage language comprehension, production and reflection. I expect this book will soon be as creased up and dog-earred as my copy of Teaching Unplugged.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Review: How to Write Exam Preparation Materials (Roy Norris / ELT Teacher 2 Writer)

A growing trend over recent times in ELT has been e-publishing. From independent groups like the round to self-publishers like Phil Wade and others featured at ELT ebooks, there is a definite shift from big publishing houses to smaller-scale' instant access titles.

Of course, self-publishing in ELT has been around for much longer in the form of shared resources and materials. These have often varied in quality, however, with several gems available online but many duds as well suffering from lack of editing, inadequate planning, and poor design (not to mention violations of copyright!)

One independent publisher which aims to address such issues is ELT Teacher 2 Writer, a group of experienced authors from the world of ELT publishing, passing on their advice through a series of titles forming an e-book delivered "Training Course for ELT Writers".

Image taken from eltteacher2writer.co.uk
The titles available cover preparing and writing activities for different language skills, vocabulary, digital media and video, and there are even e-books covering authoring graded readers and course book components. The remainder of this review will focus on 'How to Write Exam Preparation Materials' by Roy Norris, a sample pdf copy of which was kindly provided to me by ELT Teacher 2 Writer.

As is often the case in ELT publishing, the author got into materials writing by first preparing his own practice materials for his own students before being invited to write an exam preparation book for FCE. This is reflected in the book as many of the chapters offer advice on both preparing activities to use in class and writing tasks intended for sharing with a wider audience through publishing.

Roy discusses the pros and cons of exam preparation books in the introduction and specifically focuses on the challenge of meeting the need for well-defined and accurate practice materials while also providing the variety and opportunities for interaction that are vital to a successful learning environment. He also emphasises the need for teachers and materials authors to be highly familiar with the exam they are focused on, not only in terms of task types but also in terms of level and expected range of language.

The book itself is presented in the style of a self-study training course, including a number of tasks to review each chapter. These encourage the reader to engage with the input and apply the ideas rather than just skim through. Each task has a commentary from the author, accessible from a link immediately underneath.

The topics covered are:
  • preparing multi-choice cloze tests
  • open cloze tests
  • multi-choice listening
  • multi-choice reading
  • writing tasks
  • speaking activities
The advice is not based on any exam in particular, though most of the examples are suitable for B1+ level tests such as FCE and above. The advice is adaptable but I felt that the reader could benefit from direct examples for lower level tests such as KET.

Each section contains advice on writing good questions which meet the exam criteria along with a very useful and in-depth look at the 'art' of choosing distractors for multi-choice questions. There are also plenty of tips on writing and/or selecting the content material as well to ensure it is at the right level and matched thematically to the exam syllabus.

The writing task section focuses quite heavily on sample answers, with good reason as the questions themselves are usually very straightforward. There are also a number of useful suggestions for exploiting those sample texts to help students prepare to plan and write their own answers.

Each section also features time-saving tips such as preparing your multi-choice key before writing your answers to avoid later needing to rearrange everything after realising you have hour 'c' answers in a row!

Overall, the book gives a clear impression of the potential difficulties involved in writing exam practice materials and yet manages to do so without being off-putting to potential authors. It gives a strong sense of 'can do' to the reader, with the chapters on cloze tests and multi-choice activities particularly useful.

The only section I thought could benefit from more detail was the chapter on speaking (also an area many exams could do with focusing on more). This chapter is quite brief with a look at using images and discussion questions but without the same depth of examples as the other chapters. Exam activities involving two or more candidates interacting with each other, as used in KET and PET, are also not covered.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of useful information here for those who would like to write materials, whether that be for a publisher, to showcase and/or share online, or simply to help their students better prepare for a specific exam. The advice on writing the questions could be useful for students too, so they can see the thought process that goes into each task. After all, the ultimate aim of any preparation material must be to help the student transcend the distractors and achieve the best score they can.

This title and all the other ELT Teacher 2 Writer Training Course for ELT Writers materials are listed on the ELT Teacher 2 Writer website. At the time of writing, these titles are available at a discount as part of a September Sale - visit the Facebook page for details. Please note that the sale is scheduled to end on September 23rd, 2015 (tomorrow!)